December 20, 2007
Pg. 6 Stoppenhagen trio to leave behind Mom, Dad for tours of duty in Iraq
By Robert King, The Indianapolis Star
DECATUR, Ind. — Tami and Stan Stoppenhagen have had a house full of boys for more than 20 years. They've stepped over toy soldiers on the living room floor and battled the Sunday-morning wiggles at church.
In January, the Stoppenhagen boys will be gone. Josh, Zach and Jake are going to war. They are among 3,400 Indiana National Guard soldiers who will be deploying to Iraq next month.
As much as she worries about their safety, Tami Stoppenhagen draws some comfort in knowing all three sons are going.
"If they are together," she said, "they will all check on each other, and they will look out for each other."
Jake, the youngest at 19, clings to a verse from the Bible, Matthew 17:20, in which Jesus talks about how the power of faith can move mountains. He is counting on his faith to bring all three brothers home safely.
"There is serious power in prayer," he said. "It doesn't just make you feel good. But if you want something to happen, God will help you if it is for the right cause."
Josh, 24, and Zach, 23, their parents say, seemed determined to compete in everything as they grew up, from who would be first to shed their training wheels to who would dominate the backyard basketball court.
Zach joined the Guard first, signing up four months after Sept. 11, 2001. Because he was only 17, and still a junior in high school, his parents had to sign a consent form. "I wanted to serve my country," he said. "I figured it was the right thing to do."
Josh, who admits to being the worst loser in the family, said brotherly competition had nothing to do with his enlistment a month after Zach. He'd been thinking about the Guard. Zach's enlistment, he said, simply confirmed his own choice.
More laid-back, Jake has never had that competitive streak, which, along with his personality, made his decision to enlist all the more shocking to his parents. While his big brothers jostled for supremacy on the backyard basketball court, he became best friends with the girl next door. She and Jake would sell lemonade and night crawlers out by the road.
Army media relations Maj. Anne Edgecomb said having three brothers in one combat theater together is at least "uncommon."
Although in the same brigade, the trio will not serve side by side. And that could challenge their mother's desire to see them look out for one other.
Josh will be working at brigade headquarters, handling personnel issues and monitoring, as best he can, his brothers' whereabouts. Zach will be a medic with the brigade commander's security team. Jake will be a medic with an infantry unit, destination unknown.
The boys speak reverently of their parents, who have been married 27 years.
Tami, 46, grew up in Fort Wayne. As a respiratory therapist at a local hospital, she enforces a strict no-smoking rule in her house and the family. She dutifully shuttled the boys to various sporting events.
She has never seen Saving Private Ryan
, the movie about the Army's attempt to retrieve a mother's last surviving son from the battlefield after her other sons perished. And she has no plans to. Stan, 49, grew up on a farm in nearby Hoagland, worked for years as a paramedic and is a skilled carpenter. He made their home's kitchen cabinets from the wood of ash trees grown on their property. And he has found some unusual ways to teach his sons the skills he's picked up over the years.
A couple of years ago Stan bought an old house and made a deal with Zach and Josh: If they remodeled it, he would sell it and split the proceeds with them. They stripped it down to the studs and went to work, eventually turning a nice profit. In the same manner, he bought Zach two go-carts for Christmas one year. Neither of which could run.
Stan said he knew Zach would get them up and running, which he eventually did. "It made them more fun to ride," Stan said.
The boys gained a greater appreciation for their dad five years ago, when he was nearly killed in a car accident. Another car ran a stop sign and smashed into his truck, leaving him with a broken neck and other injuries.
So the Stoppenhagens say they recognize the frailty of life, even far from a combat zone.
The boys say they think sometimes about what their parents might do if things go badly for the Stoppenhagens. But never for too long. This is, after all, a family that believes resolutely in the war as a noble cause.
"We all volunteered. Nobody made us go. None of us are trying to get out of it," said Josh, the eldest. "I think this is what the Indiana National Guard is all about
: sacrificing for the greater good."
Their mother is resolved to accept what lies ahead. Even if the Army offered one of her boys an out, she knows none of them would take it. "They would say, 'Who would stay home?' " she said. "They all want to be together. They all want to go. They want to do their duty, and all come home at the same time."